Seattle Trademark History Tour, Part 10: Behaving Badly at the St. Francis Since 1907

by Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition
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Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition

This year, the great city of Seattle, Washington is the location of both the International Trademark Association Annual Meeting (May 19-23) and the American Intellectual Property Law Association Spring Meeting (May 15-17). If you are one of the many lawyers attending these events and you want a Seattle trademark experience, you could do the obvious and visit locations associated with the city’s famous modern brands. Alternatively, you could go back in time a bit further.

Washington became the 42nd state in 1889, the same year the Great Seattle Fire destroyed much of the city. A combination of new railroad lines and post-fire construction led to a boom in population and commercial activity. On July 17, 1897, this already-promising economic climate went into hyper-drive when the S.S. Portland arrived from Alaska, heralding the beginning of the Klondike gold rush. The trademark disputes that arose from this economic activity started working their way into the published opinions of the Ninth Circuit and the newly christened Washington Supreme Court in the first decades of the twentieth century.

We took a look at the first ten trademark disputes involving the city of Seattle (which date from the turn of the century up to the start of World War I). To our delight, we found them riddled with connections to celebrities, shootouts, world politics and the multicultural fabric of migration in the American west. So, if you need something to do in Seattle, why not review our ten part Seattle Trademark History series. You can even create your own Seattle Trademark History Tour by consulting our handy map (also reprinted at the end of this post) and visiting one of the locations that gave rise to these disputes. This is Part 10. You can find the other nine parts of the series (once they are published) by clicking here.

Behaving Badly at the St Francis Since 1907

In 1905, the Hotel St. Francis opened for business at 816 Union Street. Likely named after the much more famous St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco (which opened the previous year), Seattle’s Hotel St. Francis was a modest wooden structure of forty-eight rooms and a dining room, where families could stay for about $3.50 a week.

St. Francis Hotel at 5th Avenue and Madison

In January 1907, the brand new swanky St. Francis Hotel opened for business a mere four blocks away, at the corner of 9th Avenue and Madison Street. The new St. Francis Hotel was made of brick and cement, had seventy-eight rooms and all the modern conveniences, including private baths, a barbershop, a billiard room, and even its own telephone exchange. Guests were charged $4.50 a night.

Actual confusion ensued.  The old Hotel St. Francis started receiving phone calls, deliveries, luggage, and even an emergency medical visit intended for the new St. Francis Hotel. The owner of the old Hotel St. Francis got fed up and sold the property to W. Martell in May 1907. Martell marched right into court and asked for an injunction against the new St. Francis Hotel’s use of the name.

But King County Superior Court Judge Robert Brooke Albertson dismissed the case. As grounds for dismissal, Judge Albertson noted that (1) the defendant didn’t know about the plaintiff’s hotel when it opened the new St. Francis Hotel, and thus there was no fraudulent intent; (2) the plaintiff Martell was aware of the defendant’s new hotel when he purchased the old hotel in May 1907 from the previous owners, so he knew what he was getting into; and (3) the defendant’s new hotel was much fancier and unlikely to attract the sort of riff-raff that was staying in the plaintiff’s old dive.

Justice Wallace Mount, writing for the Washington Supreme Court in Martell v. St. Francis Hotel Co., 51 Wash. 375, 98 P. 1116 (Wash. January 05, 1909), disagreed. As to the defendant’s argument that its new establishment was of a higher class, Justice Mount held:

They are both hotels, and necessarily in competition with each other. . . If the right to adopt a name already used by a hotel depends upon the size of the building, or the rates charged, or the number of servants employed or capital invested, then, as remarked by the appellants in their brief, this rule would permit another company with more money than the defendant to establish a larger better and more exclusive hotel across the street from the defendant’s hotel under the same name, and its business could be thus injured or event ruined without redress. Of course, that is not the rule.

The bottom line here was that were two hotels in the same Seattle neighborhood with confusingly similar monikers. The St. Francis Hotel would have to change its name.  It later became known as “The Madison.”

Vito’s at The Madison

In 1953, The Madison came to house one of Seattle’s most colorful watering holes, Vito’s, the slogan of which is “Behaving badly since 1953.” For nearly six decades, Vito’s became a haunt for politicians, teamsters, lawyers, gangsters and police. Even the F.B.I. stopped by once in a while to plant a bug, and Senator Warren Magnuson’s wake reportedly took place in the back room. Guests used to wander in from the Hotel Sorrento across the street (Justice Mount was right – a “larger, better and more exclusive” hotel was built just a cross the street only months after his opinion issued). Dan Aykroyd and Snoop Dogg even showed up together one night after attending the opening of the Experience Music Project (now Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture). But the fun came to a stop on November 23, 2008, when Nathaniel Thomas, an alleged member of the Hoovers gang, was shot dead on the premises by the member of a rival club.

In 2010, new owners took over and reincarnated the old St. Francis Hotel location as Vito’s jazz club and restaurant. It’s still there, just a four block walk from the Washington State Convention Center. And if you happen to be at the Washington State Convention Center while reading this, you are standing just about on top of the old Hotel St. Francis location at 816 Union Street. What would have been the 800 block of Union Street is just next to the loading dock entrance and the tunnel to the I-5.

Special thanks to the following excellent sources, all of which were consulted for this blog series: Gary Flynn’s Brewerygems.com; Historylink.org, a free online encyclopedia of Washington state history; Blackpast.org, an online reference guide to African American History; librarian Alan Michelson’s Pacific Coast Architecture Database; the University of Washington library digital collection; the Orbis Cascade Alliance’s Archive West; Lost Restaurants of Seattle by Chuck Flood; the Pacific Shellfish Institute website; Historian Rob Ketcherside’s ba-kground blog; the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog; the DorpatSharrardLomont blog Seattle Now & Then Series; the Seattle Times; the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website; and Seattle-Tacoma radio station KNKX.

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